By Julie Berling
If you’re like me, you’ve likely been overwhelmed by the statistics and strong sentiments being expressed about the recent foodborne illness outbreak being linked to chicken. I am a food marketer of a chicken brand, but my most important job is being a mom of two so I am a consumer myself. Because of this I feel the need, not to defend the food system, but to define this particular food challenge more clearly.
While the fact prevails that the American food supply is the safest in the world thanks to industry and government efforts, it is little comfort in light of the legitimate concerns surrounding this current situation. Like most people, I am mindful about the food I eat and feed to my family. I also know I play a part in the food safety chain and need to balance the actual risk this situation presents against the hype around it.
For me, the following quote from former USDA Deputy Undersecretary Dr. Scott Hurd, posted at http://www.bestfoodfacts.org/food-for-thought/salmonella-chicken puts the issue into perspective.
First: Facts About Salmonella
If you played a word association game and someone said Salmonella, I bet the word most people would say next would be “chicken.” But Salmonella isn’t just found in chicken.
Salmonella are microscopic living organisms found worldwide in cold- and warm-blooded animals. In fact, Salmonella occur naturally in birds’ intestines. The bad news: While good for healthy birds (just like some bacteria are good for our digestive systems), Salmonella are not so good for us.
While the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports Salmonella infections, in TOTAL, have increased by 10% in recent years, its sources are varied. Among the reasons why: it is found in many other types of foods including eggs, milk, fruit, vegetables and even processed foods like peanut butter. And it’s likely to be carried by animals including reptiles, baby birds, and even small rodents such as hamsters.
Second: Stick It to Salmonella
The good news is we can stick it to Salmonella, because it’s wimpy when it comes to heat and hot soapy water. And the incidence of Salmonella on processed chicken you buy has dropped considerably in the past 8 years. In terms of chicken, there are multiple interventions in place all along the food chain—from the farm, to feed quality, to the processing plant, to transportation and handling, to the retail store and to the restaurant.
For example, when raising our chickens, we try to replace Salmonella in the chickens’ systems with bacteria that are good for them and not a risk factor for humans—thus reducing the chance of foodborne illness due to bacteria. In our plants, we use interventions to help reduce Salmonella and perform ongoing testing to ensure we’re meeting all of the standards set forth by the USDA-Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS).
All of our facilities are Safe Quality Food 7th Edition Level II certified. For you and I, that means over 300 different checks and inspections are performed from start to finish. Visit GNP Company’s (the brand’s mother hen), “How Chicken is Produced” Infographic for the full production process at: http://gnpcompany.com/files/GNP_Infographic_Combine.pdf.
Even though we use all these food safety performance checks, the real power rests on your plate. Salmonella is susceptible to heat—which makes cooking meat to 165 degrees F a sure-fire food safety control. By ensuring a safe kitchen, being careful not to cross-contaminate, using a meat thermometer every time, and always making sure your chicken is thoroughly cooked when eating out, we can take control of Salmonella.
- CLEAN. Wash hands, cutting boards, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water.
- SEPARATE. Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from ready-to-eat foods.
- COOK. Use a meat thermometer to ensure that cooked foods reach a safe internal temperature: 145°F for whole meats (allowing the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or consuming), 160°F for ground meats, and 165°F for poultry.
- CHILL. Keep your refrigerator below 40°F. Refrigerate food that will spoil.
Safe handling tips at JustBareChicken.com:
Third: The News about Salmonella
From “New salmonella outbreak in chicken” to “Feds threaten to shut 3 salmonella-linked chicken plants,” there are many news headlines this week about the recent foodborne illness outbreak linked to chicken.
Today, we’re not just hearing about Salmonella but particular strains of Salmonella like Heidelberg, which is one commonly found in poultry. We’re also hearing about more foodborne outbreaks caused by Salmonella and about antibiotic resistance in Salmonella. As a result, we might think there are new strains of Salmonella emerging, more dangerous antibiotic-resistant strains, and more cases of illness caused by eating chicken. But the evidence doesn’t support that—at least not according to Dr. Hurd, the expert I previously quoted (SOURCE: http://www.bestfoodfacts.org/food-for-thought/salmonella-chicken).
FACT: There aren’t new strains of Salmonella, just new tools that are making testing more accurate. So while some think there’s more and new strains of Salmonella, scientific testing and classification proves there’s not.
FACT: There is better identification and reporting of the causes of foodborne illness than ever, not more cases. In the case of chicken and Salmonella, prevalence increased from 2000-2005 and decreased dramatically from 2005-2012, but there were no significant changes in human salmonellosis. This indicates that consumption of poultry is not having a significant impact on salmonellosis (the illness Salmonella causes) in humans.
FACT: Bacteria are affected by antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance in Salmonella IS NOT new. Virtually every bacterium is resistant to some type of antibiotic. And experts, like Dr. Hurd, don’t believe more dangerous strains have been emerging.
FACT: Poultry production interventions are reducing Salmonella. Thanks to a multi-hurdle Salmonella intervention approach being used by food brands like us and the USDA-FSIS, the incidence of Salmonella on chicken you buy has dropped from nearly 14 percent in 2004 to just less than four percent in 2012. And the new proposed poultry inspection modernization act could further these advances by using science to focus on the safety of finished products.
FACT: Misconceptions muddy the Salmonella facts. These misconceptions are complicating the simple truth that Salmonella can be controlled if chicken is properly handled and cooked.
I feel blessed to live in a country where most of us have an abundance of safe food and the ability and resources to keep it safe. Yet there are still many food issues that are cause for concern in the U.S and around the world.
We’re one of the fattest and least fit nations—more than one in three adults are obese according to the CDC. A new report released by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation projects these obesity figures will increase to one in two by 2030, if we don’t change our ways. Why does that matter? Obesity can lead to life-threatening health problems such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
According to the World Health Rankings posted on www.worldlifeexpectancy.com, 53.3 people out of 100,000 die each year due to malnutrition in Haiti compared to 1 out of 100,000 in the U.S. (SOURCE: http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/cause-of-death/malnutrition/by-country/). And according to the World Health Organization, about 45 percent of all child deaths are linked to malnutrition.
While some may think I’m trying to take attention away from the current Salmonella situation, this is not my intent. I believe food safety is at the top of every food companies’ list…but it’s not the only food issue we face. Collectively, we need to work with others in the food system to continually make it better and find solutions to the food challenges of our nation and world. As an interconnected food community, we need to take accountability for ourselves, our food choices and behaviors. A food system is only as good as its weakest link. If we all strive to get better, our chain will be unbreakable.